This high-spirited, dynamic leader has been consistently named and recognized as one of the most powerful businesswomen in America! She’s very well-known within her industry and the state of Texas but, ironically, few other people recognize her name, her position, or what she has done to attain her many accomplishments. And that’s fine with Colleen Barrett. She avoids the limelight as she focuses all of her energy and effort on her organization and the beloved employees who grew an upstart discount air carrier into America’s busiest airline by passenger volume.
Much has been written about her legendary employer, Southwest Airlines, and its co-founder Herb Kelleher. Stories about this organization and Kelleher border on fantasy and fable. However, what many are unaware of is the fact that Colleen Barrett created the majority of that culture in her own unique fashion.
As you might guess after witnessing the chaos of the airline industry over the past decade, there are very few airline executives quite like Barrett, 65, and probably won’t be many like her in the future. She is truly one-of-a-kind.
Barrett’s long path to the president’s office began in 1967 when she was a 23-year-old legal secretary looking for a job in San Antonio. She had just graduated with highest honors from Becker Junior College in Worcester, Maine. The Vermont native joined an established law firm that included another East Coast transplant, Herb Kelleher, and his disorganized office. From the time she began helping Kelleher, as an executive assistant, she found herself doing legal work for this little airline being started by one of his clients, San Antonio businessman Rollin King.
After a bruising, vicious legal battle, Southwest finally started flying passengers on June 18, 1971. Then, in 1978, the first chief executive, Lamar Muse, resigned in a boardroom battle, pushing Kelleher—and right-hand person Colleen Barrett—into a much more active role.
Kelleher became chairman, even as he kept up as much of his San Antonio law practice as possible. And for the eight months it took to get a new CEO in place, he and Barrett would work all week in Dallas, then fly home to San Antonio on the weekend.
Then, in 1981, Muse’s replacement as president and CEO, Howard Putnam, quit to join Braniff International Airways. Kelleher took the chief executive’s and president’s job as well, and Barrett moved to Dallas.
From there, the legend of the Herb-and-Colleen show grew. Herb was this brilliant, flamboyant executive; Colleen was the assistant who kept him organized, on focus, on time.
But as she was helping Kelleher, she was putting her own stamp on the airline, making sure that the carrier did the right thing for its employees. The underlying principle was that if the airline took care of its employees, the employees would take care of the customers, and the shareholders would win too. This has been Barrett’s personal philosophy and battle cry since day one!
In 1986, she was named vice president of administration. Then, in 1990, Kelleher told Barrett that she was certainly ready for the promotion to the level of executive vice president. He even allowed her to pick her own title. She chose that of Executive Vice President of Customers, allowing her to continue her crusade on behalf of both internal and external customers.
In 2001, as Kelleher prepared to step back from some of his responsibilities, the board of directors named general counsel Jim Parker Chief Executive and Barrett President and Chief Operating Officer.
The new titles helped the world understand that Barrett had played a key part in making Southwest what it has become. She has played a key role in Southwest’s unusual and now legendary approach to customer service, which aims to treat the company’s 35,000 employees like family, to make the workplace fun—and then to carry that upbeat attitude to consumers. It’s a strategy that has made an upstart discount carrier into America’s busiest airline by passenger volume.
One unusual aspect of her philosophy is that employees come before customers, although that’s intentional in order to ultimately drive the most value to the customer. That philosophy, coupled with the brilliance to hedge fuel costs, is creating remarkable success even in today’s floundering air industry. Once again, it all comes down to people.
Barrett stepped down as President and Corporate Secretary of Southwest effective July 16, 2008. Although she also yielded her longtime position as Corporate Secretary, Southwest has announced that she will remain an employee of the corporation through July 2013.
Barrett is active in numerous civic and charitable organizations in Dallas, Texas; serves on the JCPenney Company, Inc. Board of Directors, the Ken Blanchard College of Business, and the Becker College Board of Trustees; and has served on numerous advisory boards and commissions.
Here are just a few of her many business awards and honors:
- Recognized as one of the Top 25 Most Influential Women by the Dallas Business Journal’s Women in Business (2008)
- Texas Labor Management Hall of Fame (2008)
- Tower Award, National Association of Women Business Owners, Cleveland (2008)
- Dallas YWCA Centennial Award 100 Women, 100 Years (2008)
- Junior Achievement’s Dallas Business Hall of Fame (2007)
- Girls Inc. Honoree (2007)
- Outstanding Woman in Aviation Award (2007)
- World’s 100 Most Powerful Women: Forbes.com (2005, 2004)
- Horatio Alger Award (2005)
- Women in Aviation, International Pioneer Hall of Fame (2005)
- Aiming High Honoree: National Organization of Women (2003)
- Featured in Texas Women-Trailblazers, Shining Stars & Cowgirls (2003)